Recruiting remains the hot topic for Lovie Smith, Illini

How Lovie adjusts to, succeeds at recruiting is still the most significant question for new era of Illini football

CHICAGO - Lovie Smith had a low bar to leap in order to top his predecessor's past performances at Big Ten Media Days. But the first-year Illinois football coach on Tuesday proved yet again that a new, more capable regime represents Illini football.

No more yelling into the mic. No more butchering trumped-up acronyms. Smith answered questions in his mellow tone -- calm and confidently. His 12-minute morning oratory from the podium on live television -- followed by an eight-minute side session and hour-long closer-quarters podium Q&A later that afternoon -- bordered on somewhat boring.

But after the last four years, Illinois could use a little more boring. For once, Illinois public relations personnel had no mess to clean up, no egregious answers to spin. A drama-free day. Imagine that.

Smith also has brought some positive intrigue to the Illini, who face an arduous climb up the steep Big Ten ladder. He's also brought some stability and some swagger.

A day after Pat Fitzgerald forgot to mention Smith when the Northwestern coach welcomed the three other new Big Ten head coaches to the fold, Smith ended his introductory statement at his early-morning podium presser with a poke back at his new in-state rival.

"We feel like we're Chicago's team," Smith said in reference to Northwestern's slogan "Chicago's Big Ten team."

Smith also has the respect of some of his most successful peers. Ohio State coach Urban Meyer and Michigan State coach Mark Dantonio both complimented the first-year Illini coach on the second day of Big Ten Media Days at the Hyatt Regency McCormick Place.

"Instant credibility and name recognition," Meyer said. "I think it's great for our conference, great for Illinois. Anxious to see what he does."

Said Dantonio: "I believe that the University of Illinois found themselves a great football coach."

Coaching ability isn't much of a question for the relatively successful 11-year NFL head coach -- though some Buccaneers fans surely will argue the contrary after Smith took over a rebuild job in Tampa and went 8-24 record over two seasons -- which included an 81-64 record with the Chicago Bears and a Super Bowl XLI appearance.

The main questions Smith faced from regional and national media on Tuesday surrounded something he didn't and couldn't prove in the NFL: recruiting.

The practice has changed a lot since he last was a college coach, an assistant on Ohio State's staff in 1995.

"(Recruiting) is a year-round sport in itself in recruiting," Smith said. "That's going to change. I knew that coming in. I knew we had a good product. So I knew we would be able to sell that. But not just recruiting, per se, for the current class, but how soon recruiting starts as far as recruiting an athlete. It's not about him going into his senior year. Of course, it's a lot earlier than that. Again, we've embraced it. It has been nonstop. But again when you have a good product, you like talking about it. And again now it's about developing the -- we talk about developing the entire athlete, the man. And people are embracing that a little bit. I can't say that I haven't enjoyed it; I really have."

Still playing catch-up

After just four months the job -- and more than six months away from Signing Day -- Smith hasn't definitively answered whether he can recruit the talent needed for Illinois to consistently contend with Iowa, Nebraska, Wisconsin and even Northwestern; let alone Ohio State, Michigan and Michigan State.

Don't be mistaken, this is a major rebuild for Smith -- who inherits a solid senior class but weak junior and freshman classes. His late hiring (March) put his staff months behind the other three Big Ten hires in recruiting the Class of 2017 prospects. He was already years behind the established programs, who often start recruiting their top targets as freshmen and sophomores. The Illini are still playing catch-up.

Among Big Ten programs, Illinois currently has the lowest quantity of commitments (six) in the Class of 2017 -- though the Illini's average star ranking (3.00) is 10th in the conference.

Some fans are voicing some early concerns, but the Illini coach doesn't sound worried. "I just know we're going to sign 25 good players this season," Smith said. "Recruiting has gone well. I haven't said publicly yet I guess but I really believe in an early-signing period, which we don't have right now to be able to gauge a little bit more where you are. Commitments and things like that, those engagements, most of the time they follow through, but that's not a given. I like where we are with recruiting right now. In time, what I've found and what I've seen, I love the prospects we have here in Chicago."

Smith already is doing better in the home state than the previous Illini staff. The Illini signed just two state of Illinois prospects last year. Lovie earned five in-state commitments during a 50-day span this spring. Four live in the Chicagoland area and the other is from the northern city of Rockford.

"In order for us to do well we need to do well in the Chicago area," Smith said. "And why wouldn't you want to do well? A lot of great athletes here. As you say, without mentioning names I'll say recruiting has gone well. They're listening to us, and that's all we want. Give us a chance. Not just Chicago area. There's a triangle of the St. Louis area, of course. And Indianapolis there's a triangle. I'm from Texas. So we'll, of course, recruit that area."

Illinois also is focusing a lot of attention in Florida, Alabama and California. 

'I don't feel like I'm a phony'

Smith has opened a lot of doors. Most -- even those out-of-state -- know him well. Smith's face was beamed into current recruits' homes for most of their sports consciousness.

Smith's defensive coordinator, Hardy Nickerson, was a five-time Pro Bowler who recruits' parents watched on Sundays. Offensive line coach Luke Butkus, nephew of Hall of Famer Dick Butkus, was a captain on the 2001 Illini Sugar Bowl team. Offensive coordinator Garrick McGee ran explosive offenses under Bobby Petrino at Arkansas and Louisville.

Smith hopes that track record sells itself.

"Sometimes when things don't go the way people like, change is good and you get excited about change and seeing what possibly could be," Smith said. "We all have histories of what we've done in our past. Hopefully that has helped a little bit. I know recruiting-wise that has helped me and us quite a bit of the Chicago area. I can't talk specifics about recruiting but one message I've gotten is, 'Lovie, we already know you. You've been in our home on Sundays quite a bit.' So it has helped a little bit. "They're seeing my face and that's the first step, just getting them to come down, look at our university. We've gotten a lot of players to come down and see our university. We have another big function coming up Thursday on campus It's been good. Everything has been positive, which you'd expect. When you've never lost a game at a place, usually it's pretty positive, right? That's pretty much how it's been."

While Lovie has opened doors for Illinois, the foundation of the house where he now resides is still creaky. Illinois -- which has an 8-32 Big Ten record the last five seasons -- hasn't landed five-star prospects overnight. They're still losing recruiting battles to just solid power-five programs.

Recruiting may be more important than the 2016 record. But it's still unclear how much of an impact the latter will have on the former. Former Illini coach Ron Zook landed top classes despite winning just four games over his first two seasons. The Illini have some top-end talent in 2016, but their lack of depth gives them little margin for error to achieve their modest goal of a bowl berth. The roster gets even weaker next season, putting even more pressure to win this season to capitalize on some early buzz and hope. 

Smith has given Illinois some stability and credibility, but he still most likely has to win to change the perception of Illinois. To win, he needs to convince more talented players to Illinois.

"I knew coming in we had to sell our brand and Josh Whitman, our athletic director, and I have covered quite a bit of ground speaking with our fans, our alumni, letting them know about the new day," Smith said. "They're the rebirth of our program. So it is a lot about that. But eventually, as you also mentioned, it will come down to what we do on the football field. We realize that. We realize we have to put a better product on the football field. It's as simple as that. That's why again I'm excited about the players we have. When you come into a new situation, a new team and you have a lot of seniors that have played a lot of football, it gives you hope. And that's what we have."

Illini fans do have hope. A Sunday meet-and-greet with Smith and Whitman was so crowded with bodies-- mostly of recent UI grads familiar with a Kam's-like setting -- that the room temperature rose to uncomfortable levels (a good sign for Illinois). During Tuesday's fan portion of media days, many more Illini fans showed up to get autographs from their football coach than any of the previous four seasons.

Smith showed on Tuesday why Illini fans are buying in. Smith is the antithesis of his predecessor. He's a proven coaching commodity respected by his peers. He offers straight talk rather than nonsense.

Now, he just needs more talented recruits to buy in too.

"For me, this is who I am," Smith said. "I don't feel like I'm a phony. I let people know how we're going to do things. And, again, players can get information from players that we have, to get the information they need. So that's how we're doing it. We feel like once people really listen to how we're going to do things and see how we coach on a daily basis, that people will want to get on board with that."


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